Op-Ed

What issues will matter to Trump’s base of support?

President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday in Oxon Hill, Md.
President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday in Oxon Hill, Md. The Associated Press

For all the things low-information voters supportive of President Donald Trump are not supposed to care about (e.g., lies, White House chaos, foreign policy), there are, it’s fair to say, two things that will make a difference to them both in preference and turnout in 2018. The good news for Democrats is that both factors do not weigh in Trump’s favor.

First, his voters will want to know: Did he do what he said he would on the important issues? That means delivering on Obamacare, a tax cut and border security.

Obamacare

On Obamacare, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., made a Kinsley gaffe – meaning he told an impolitic truth. Huffington Post reports, “Asked when Republicans might get down to the business of crafting an Obamacare alternative, Corker said he wasn’t sure. ‘I have no idea,’ he said. ‘I’m not on a committee that deals with this … but I don’t see any congealing around ideas yet. And I think it’s fine that we take our time. … I mean, we’re dealing with something that is very important, very complicated. It’s explosive if not handled properly, and we should take our time and do it right.”

Every email Speaker of the House Paul Ryan issues bragging that everything is moving ahead on replacing Obamacare makes me think not much of anything is happening. Corker makes sense when he warns about the perils of reconciliation.

Repealing taxes is popular, but Corker warned that doing so sets up a perpetual trap for Republicans.

“If you repeal the taxes on the front end and you end up with, say, a Medicaid expansion, or even if it winds up being refundable tax credits, you’re still expending dollars,” he said. “And if you repeal all the sources of income on the front end, then” – Corker paused to emphasize the absurdity of the position – “it’s difficult to me to see how you ever get to a place where you actually fund what you’re expending. And then you’ve self-created the doc-fix scenario, where each year it just keeps getting extended, you’re piling up the deficits, because I don’t see Republicans voting for a tax increase.

“That’s why to me it’s important that this happen simultaneously,” Corker said. “I don’t see a scenario where people are pushing to insure less people. You’ve got to have money to pay for that.”

Tax reform

So what about tax reform? Eh, that’s not going much of anywhere, either. The border tax has thrown a monkey wrench into an already complicated issue. (Even without that complication, House Republicans have never written and put up for a vote a complete tax plan.) The border-tax idea, driven in large part by the speaker who used to be the darling of free-market conservatives, will be exceptionally divisive just on the GOP side. Freedom Partners, a Koch brothers group, and many business groups are opposed to the idea. “Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Nike Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp. joined an opposing coalition, warning that border adjustment will cause consumer price increases,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Key lawmakers are already raising concerns.

Every chip away at unanimity makes tax overhaul tougher. Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, a senior Ways and Means member, says some of his constituents back border adjustment while others are worried. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pa., says refiners in his district rely on imported oil and that he is arguing for an exception. “It puts us at a remarkable competitive disadvantage,” he says. At least seven GOP senators have expressed concerns about border adjustment, including Utah’s Mike Lee, Arkansas’s John Boozman, Georgia’s David Perdue and Texas’ John Cornyn.

Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said last week that he had questions about border adjustment and that the Senate would put its own stamp on the tax bill.

“I worry that consumers, my Kansas constituents, are the ones who pay the tax,” says Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. He is concerned the world might respond in ways that hurt his state’s wheat growers and airplane makers.

“I assume you get into a battle with other countries,” he says, “and it affects the exporters.”

So tax reform can hardly be called a sure thing.

Border security

Border security? Many in Congress are threatening not to pay for Trump’s wall. Lawmakers and local officials are threatening pushback on the sanctuary cities executive order. And, of course, the travel ban has the administration tied up in litigation and, according to polls, is very unpopular. Maybe Trump will admit that net immigration is flowing to Mexico and declare victory in the effort to stop the nonexistent “flood” of illegals.

In sum, not a lot of what Trump emphasized in the campaign will likely come to fruition by 2018. And if it does, Democrats will make hay out of those who come out worse off as a result of replacing Obamacare and will point to gains by the rich in the tax plan.

Well, if those issues aren’t going to produce concrete legislative results, how else could Trump and Republicans earn voters’ continued indulgence? In essence, Trump promised a better life for the down-and-out in the Rust Belt and the resentful anti-elitists everywhere. What will be the evidence of that? Unemployment presumably would need to go even lower, coal jobs would need to return, and productivity would have to spike, resulting in wage growth. Take-home pay would have to rise, at the very least. And accomplishing those end goals may be even more challenging than passing an Obamacare replacement.

Whatever Trump thought he’d deliver may prove elusive because the problems of working-class Rust Belt voters are the result not of “foreigners stealing their jobs” or “dumb trade deals,” but long-term, knotty problems that have no easy solutions. Trump certainly has no idea how to make the transition to a 21st-century economy while making sure millions don’t get left behind. He never even talks about juicing productivity, let alone puts forth a plan to do so.

In sum, if Trump does not deliver on his major policy initiatives and does not bring about an economic renaissance for the “forgotten man and woman,” will they stick with him and with GOP majorities or stay home in 2018? Like it or not, 2018 will be a referendum on Trump and Trumpism. That’s why Democrats shouldn’t be too pessimistic about their near-term political prospects.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering opinion from a conservative perspective.

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